Sunday, 20 September 2020

Forgotten History: The Dutch Fort at Falta

West Bengal isn’t really known for its forts. That is not to say that there were never any forts in this part of the country. Gangetic West Bengal is lacking in stone, and therefore forts that were built here, were mostly built of mud. Since mud forts do not survive for a long time, there aren’t any left from the medieval era. One could point to the stone ‘fort’ of Kurumbera, but evidence says that it wasn’t a fort at all, but a temple complex.

The only forts that survive in West Bengal are those that were built during the colonial era. As the East India companies from various European countries settled in this part of the world, they built strongholds from where they could do business or provide security. These forts, built of brick and mortar, have survived to some degree, though often as little more than ruins. While in any other part of the world they would be developed as tourist attractions, here they have mostly been left to fall apart and disappear. One such fort is the former Dutch fort of Falta, in the South 24 Parganas district, approximately 50km to the southeast of the state capital of Kolkata.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Fact-Checking Ashutosh Gowarikar's Panipat

Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Panipat: The Great Betrayal was released on the 6th of December. The film presents itself as a fictionalized version of the historic battle. In India this is generally code for “we couldn’t bother to do enough research and decided to play fast and loose with history”. I watched the film at the historic Star Theatre in Kolkata today, and here are some odd things about the film that I noticed

Monday, 27 May 2019

The Mosque that Was: Siraj-ud-Daula's Alinagar Masjid

With a population of a million Muslims, Calcutta or Kolkata has well over 500 mosques. While most of these mosques are from the 19th century, there are a few which are older. But what could have been one of the grandest and most historic mosques of the city, does not exist anymore. The mosque, established by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, would have existed in Dalhousie Square, the city’s central business district, and would have been a marker of the biggest armed conflict in the history of the city – the 1756 Siege of Calcutta.

Alinagar Masjid as imagined by Rounak Patra

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Hunt for Evergreen Lodge

A French filmmaker in Kolkata a few years ago, approached me about a documentary on the works of noted Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He wanted to highlight a side of Ray that remained unknown to French audiences. “We know Ray because of his films like The Goddess (Devi, 1960). But most French people do not know that he also made popular cinema, that he made films for children, and that he was a popular author”. To Bengalis such as me, Ray is of course as much an author as filmmaker. He is the creator of the detective character Pradosh Chandra Mitra aka Feluda, of the science fiction stories featuring Professor Shonku, and of numerous short stories. These short stories more often than not, feature single, unattached men, who live alone and are involved in bizarre, spooky or horrifying incidents. The short stories have been published in collections of 12, with witty names playing on the Bengali for “dozen”. I had finished reading almost all of them by the time I was in my mid-teens. One of the most fascinating stories is one called “Brown Saheb-er Bari”, Brown Sahib’s House.

Monday, 29 April 2019

A Maratha Temple in Murshidabad

In a country as poorly documented as India, and where apart from the handful of major monuments, no historic site receives the attention, funding or promotion that it deserves, one would not be surprised to find mysterious, undocumented remains and curiosities even at a major tourist attraction. Murshidabad is a case in point. The city served as the capital of the Nawabs, the regional governors of Bengal under the Mughal Empire, from the time Murshid Quli Khan moved the regional capital here from Dhaka in 1702, until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 robbed the Nawabs of their authority and Calcutta rose in prominence. A Ministry of Tourism report from 2015 says that while Murshidabad does not attract nearly as many visitors as the city of Kolkata, the hill station of Darjeeling or the beaches of Purba Medinipur, it does attract a sizeable chunk of domestic tourists every year. As a result of this, hotels have been mushrooming all over the city at an alarming rate and the former capital now has the all the signs of an unregulated, unkempt tourist spot, where the government does little and locals do whatever they can to make a fast buck. Apart from the half a dozen or so monuments that are on the tourist itinerary, nothing else receives any attention, and interesting corners of the city that would give us a more complete picture of what the city was like, continue to wither away. Among them, is a curious little temple on the western bank of the Bhagirathi river.

The Shiva Temple at Roshnibagh

Monday, 25 March 2019

Orange and Blue: Terracotta Temples and Indigo Factory of Supur

With the possible exception of districts which are an extension of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, West Bengal is mostly lacking in stone. It is because of this that builders in the region have favoured brick, and also why terracotta has become the dominant style of the region. The English word “terracotta” comes from the Italian words terra, meaning earth, and cotta meaning cooking. Terracotta, thus, means cooked or baked earth. In Bengal, terracotta was always a folk art form, before being elevated to a fine art through the patronage of the Sultans of Gaur and Pandua, who used terracotta on their mosques. 200 years after them, an explosion of terracotta temples happened across Bengal, and most of the surviving terracotta temples that we can see today, are from the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, lop-sided promotions on the part of the government and private tourism bodies have meant that most people identify only Bishnupur with terracotta temples, when in reality, terracotta temples are spread across multiple districts in West Bengal, especially in southern West Bengal. Located approximately 9km south of Shantiniketan, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal lies the village of Supur, home to no less than 6 terracotta temples, only one of which has been chosen by the state for preservation.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Forgotten History: The Port Canning Disaster

Blogger Soham Chandra first drew my attention to a crumbling building near the Sunderbans in South Bengal that he called “Lord Canning’s Bungalow”. The British Governor General, he said, had once had this house constructed, which is why the city in the South 24 Parganas District of West Bengal is also called Canning. But this struck me as rather odd. Lord Canning had died in 1862 and back then, this part of Bengal was malarial, tiger-infested jungle. Why would the Governor General of India ever want to live here? And if it wasn’t him, then whose was the once-magnificent colonial building? My research led me to one of the biggest commercial debacles of British India – the Port Canning disaster.


Monday, 24 December 2018

The Ghosts of Garstin Place

One of the first references I read about there being a ghost in Garstin Place near Dalhousie Square in Calcutta (Kolkata) was in an article that appeared in The Telegraph. My friend and college classmate IftekharAhsan, who pioneered walking tours in the city was doing a haunted night tour. 1 Garstin Place was the location of the former studios of All India Radio and supposedly, a musician committed suicide in the studio and sometimes a piano can still be heard playing late in the night. “Buildings have many lives”, photographer Luc Peeters told me long ago, when I was just starting my journey as a photographer. The statement is also true of neighbourhoods, and especially true for Garstin Place which has seen some incredible changes and dramatic events over the last few centuries.

Garstin Building no.4 (left) and 5 (centre) - the only surviving buildings

Monday, 10 December 2018

Akbar's Tomb, Sikandra

“Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, guardian of mankind” – I learnt the Kipling poem when I was in school, and its opening lines were all I could think of as we drove the 5 miles from Agra to the Emperor’s final resting place, Sikandra. Growing up in India, the history you are taught in school is somewhat one sided, but creates a lasting impression, especially about the Mughal Emperors of India. Babur was the conqueror. Jahangir was the just one. Shah Jahan was the romantic. Aurangzeb was the angry old man. But only Akbar was “The Great”. A king who was just, fair, a great warrior, a wise administrator, a man who gathered around him a court of such brilliance that stories about it are told to this day. Every child in India knows the stories of Akbar and his court wit, Birbal, about his Hindu Rajput wife, Jodha Bai, who in all fairness is more legend than fact, and about how his court musician, the Vaishnava Tansen, could make it rain by singing the raga “Malhar”. Akbar is to Indian history what Shahrukh Khan is to Bollywood cinema – a superstar you see on screen or read about, but never imagine will be able to approach. Needless to say, I was excited as I stepped into the vast funerary garden at Sikandra – this is the closest any human being could get, to Akbar the Great.

Akbar's Mausoleum, Sikandra


Sunday, 2 December 2018

How Guides are Destroying the Murshidabad Experience

I have visited the Murshidabad thrice in 2018. The city was the last capital of Bengal before the East India Company took over and the power centre shifted to Calcutta (now Kolkata). From 1704 to 1757, Murshidabad was the seat of the powerful Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, who ruled over the richest province of the Mughal Empire, accounting for some 50% of the Empire’s GDP. There are a large number of historic structures and ruins left over from that period which make the historic city a fascinating place to visit. Like all historic sites, tourist guides are locally available. But while these guides are supposed to enhance the experience, in Murshidabad, their effect is quite the opposite. Tourist guides, who behave like goons, harassing visitors makes a trip to Murshidabad deeply unpleasant. Through my last 3 visits, here are some experiences I have had.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Belur & Halebid: Finest Examples of Hoysala Art

When it comes to ancient Indian art, the best examples are all associated with temples. While the erotic art of the Khajuraho Temples is famous, the Chennakeshava Temple of Belur and the Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebid are perhaps a little less famous, but are no less beautiful and magnificent. These are temples that were built by the Hoysala ruling dynasty of the South India and represent some of the finest achievements of the people this country in architecture and sculpture. I visited the temples in February of 2017, but before I tell you more about them, let’s take a look at the dynasty which had them built.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The REAL Dakshineswar Temple

Let me start off by clarifying that I do not mean to suggest that the Kali Temple established by Rani Rashmoni in the Dakshineswar village (Barrackpore Subdivision, North 24 Parganas District, West Bengal), is false or fake. The temple is, in fact, one of the most popular Kali Temples of West Bengal and is visited by lakhs of devotees every month. But the temple is commonly referred to as the “Dakshineswar Temple”, which is incorrect. While it is a temple, and it is in Dakshineswar, the name of a temple of Goddess Kali cannot be “Dakshineswar”, because Dakshineswar is a male name. Many people believe that it is called Dakshineswar, because the idol inside is of Dakshina Kali. This too is incorrect, because the idol housed in Rani Rashmoni’s temple is of Bhavatarini, one of the many aspects of Kali. Even if the idol was of Dakshina Kali, then the temple’s name couldn’t have been Dakshineswar, but Dakshineswari – that crucial “i” in the end makes it a female name. The temple is erroneously called Dakshineswar because that is the name of the village it is located in. But the name Dakshineswar definitely refers to a Hindu deity of some kind. So who is this Dakshineswar and where is his temple? That is the point from which my search began.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Kaliprasadi Hungama: The Scandal That Shook Calcutta

Noun; Persian
tumult, riot, uproar, confusion, disorder

Bengalis in general, at least the educated upper and upper middle classes of the capital city of Calcutta (Kolkata) pride themselves on being liberal and permissive. Inter-caste, and even interreligious marriages, that can cause uproar in the rest of India, especially in what is referred to as India’s cow-belt, are fairly common in Calcutta. To a large extent, this liberal outlook is the result of the Bengali renaissance, led by such stalwarts as Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. 30 years of atheist, communist rule in the post-independence period, have also ensured that caste plays no part in politics. But of course, it wasn’t always this way. In the early 19th century, Hindu society, even in Calcutta, exposed constantly to Western influence, was notoriously conservative and it is during this period that one of the city’s biggest scandals happened. Known as the Kaliprasadi Hungama, the scandal connects several of Calcutta’s biggest families, and places of worship belonging to multiple faiths, including Calcutta’s most famous Hindu temple – Kalighat.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Imambaras of Kolkata

Say the word Imambara to the average Bengali in Kolkata, and what he or she is likely to think of first, is the Hooghly Imambara. Prod a little further and the Nizamat Imambara will come up. Located in Murshidabad, it is the largest in Asia. The really well-informed will be able to name the Sibtainabad Imambara in Metiabruz where Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh is buried. But what the vast majority of people in Kolkata don’t know is that there are some 20 imambaras in city, most with long histories and some are spectacularly beautiful. For Muharram this year I would like to highlight this unknown aspect of Kolkata.